Monday, November 2, 2009

The Trickster - A Halloween Coyote Attack

We got an early trick-or-treater on Halloween. Cat King Cole, the ranch cat, was attacked by a coyote.

That morning, we had slept in, and Cole and I were taking our first constitutional around the farmyard at about 9:30 am. I wouldn't let Cole out until I found my glasses and shoes and my coffee mug was full. I had spotted coyotes around the ranch the last few days and although Cole is ranch-savvy and the rarely seen coyotes always run away when they see me, I was being cautious to only let him out when I was outside too.

After patrolling the corners of the compound, I decided to husk some walnuts in the lovely fall light. My technique: stroll about the walnut trees with coffee cup in hand, find the fallen nuts that are splitting out of their husks, roll them under my boot until the brown shells pop out, and leave them on the ground in the sun for a few days to dry. I had broken one of my rules, to always wear enclosed-toe shoes in the yard for snake protection, but the flip-flops I had casually slipped on were doing a fair job of walnut husking. It was mellow chore on a pleasant morning.

The stellar jays were scolding something. In the springtime, they hold yelling matches with the acorn woodpeckers every morning during the changing of the bird guard. Maybe they were yelling at Cole, yet they were used to him by now and mostly ignored him. This sounded louder and harsher. Maybe they were scolding a snake. I had been waiting for the snakes to show up as they often do on warm mornings between cold snaps in the fall when I think they are making their way back to their winter den. I scanned the grass beneath the walnut trees and the door cracks under the barn, but saw no telltale brown splotches.

After 30 minutes of flip-flop husking, I meandered around the corner of the barn. Within a few steps, I heard a big bang and commotion. A dreadful thought exploded in my head and spun me around in a run. As I cornered the barn, I saw a bushy-tailed coyote crouched near where I had just been standing. Cole's grey hindquarters were sticking out from beneath the red-grey dog. I ran straight for the coyote screaming my fear in a sonic boom. As I got close, I threw the coffee cup at the coyote. It dashed to the right and disappeared. Cole took off in a streak to the left before I could reach him. In seconds, he was down a hill, through the pig pen, under a fence and up a maple tree in the corral. I ran after him, yelling curses at the coyote the whole time, but I had to run around to the gate in the corral fence and momentarily lost sight of both coyote and Cole.

--- High up in the maple tree. ---

From under the tree I couldn't see any blood on Cole and all his limbs seemed intact, but he kept climbing higher until little twigs were breaking under his paws. His pupils were huge and he was trembling. I stopped my hysterical screaming and tried to coax him down, but he would have none of it. He was straining his neck and scanning the backyard and brush constantly, and wouldn't look at me. I realized that if I left, he might fall out of the tree and the attacking coyote and possibly others were probably hiding and watching from the brush for another chance. Indeed, they must have been watching all morning while I was humming away under the walnut trees.

--- Twigs snapping. ---

I scanned the brush and fallen-down pig shed but saw nothing, so I sat under the maple tree to decide what to do. I wanted help, but was afraid to leave. Finally, I decided to quickly dash back to the house for my pack with binoculars so I could better scan Cole's condition and for my cell phone in case I needed to call an emergency veterinarian. I grabbed a big stick and banged on every fence post and tree trunk on the way to the house to scare the coyote. When I was kid, we had a neighbor who would bang a stick against his porch posts to keep away the imaginary robbers. We thought he was crazy. I wanted the coyote to think I was crazy. Crazy enough to run after a coyote and if I had had on boots, I would have kicked it.

When I returned to the maple tree, Cole was still up high. In the binoculars, I couldn't see any wounds on his body. I waited. It seemed like a long time. I wanted to beat up the coyote but I had no idea where it was, and I knew I should stay quiet so Cole would come down. So I texted my friends on the cell phone for support. I didn't want to call them; I wasn't sure I could actually speak clearly. I could barely hit the phone buttons, but just doing something, calling out for help, was calming me down. I developed a plan.

--- Coming down. Don't fall! ---

I slowly climbed the maple tree and talked to Cole in as calm a voice as I could squeak out. He finally glanced down at me and looked surprised, "Mom can climb trees?" I found a sturdy crotch in the branches half way up and waited. In the meantime, my friends texted me back words of encouragement. Cole slowly climbed down to meet me. I rolled him in my t-shirt and made it the rest of the way down the tree, across the farmyard and into the house. Our combined exhalations were loud and sending out warnings to any coyote that dared approached us now that I had my cat in hand.

Inside the house, I searched Cole's entire body several times and did not find any wounds or blood. He was clearly upset but didn't flinch when I touched any part of his body. We spent the rest of the morning on the enclosed porch and tried to calm down.

--- Early morning sunbathing near the gate. ---

I reviewed the clues. Last week, I heard loud crunching one night and under flashlight investigation, flushed a walnut-eating coyote behind the house. Two coyotes had been sunning on a hill near the gate when I left the ranch on a cool, early morning 3 days ago. They jumped up when I got out of the car to open the gate.

---Scratch first. ---

One quickly ran down the hill, while the other lingered to scratch and look at me across the hillside before it followed the first into the sagebrush. They both had glossy, full coats. Perhaps they were young coyotes who had finished their summer of growing to full size and were now striking out on their own.

--- A fresh-looking coat. ---

The day before at dusk from the living room window, I briefly saw a fluffy tail pop over the hill behind the walnut trees. When I walked out the kitchen door to check, a bright coyote was urinating on the drive in front of the barn. It looked at me briefly and then climbed the hill behind the orchard and slowly loped through the tall grass. It frequently looked behind as if checking on something, and I guessed that a second coyote was nearby although I could not see it. At the top of the hill, the coyote sat and watched me. This behavior was unlike the quick retreat I usually observe from the local coyotes. I guessed again that this was a young coyote still learning survival skills.

--- Watching from above. ---

And today, the jays screamed a predator warning which in my morning bliss, I did not acknowledge.

--- Reflecting on a scary Halloween morning. ---

While I reviewed the recent coyote sightings, Cole seemed to be mulling himself. He sat on a table behind the Halloween pumpkin, but frequently checked any noise or motion in the yard. He was unusually quiet and didn't eat food all day. No external or internal injuries have appeared. Cole is regaining his ranch cat confidence but seems content in the house for now. He had the nerve to meow "Out?" yesterday. I gave him the you've-got-to-be-kidding look. He quieted right down.

I am reviewing the living-with-wildlife and coyote advice I have given so many people. The coyote books are spread out on the kitchen table. We get no human trick-or-treaters for Halloween at this remote location, but the trickster made his move. I recognize this is part of ranch living and I will make my move out of respect for wildlife and wild lands managed and sparsely occupied by people. And I will bang on posts like a crazy woman to protect my ranch cat.

--- The weapon of a crazy woman. ---


  1. I have always thought that the predator-prey relationship one of the more powerful determinants of animal behavior. It is particularly interesting when a predator (Cat King Cole) is faced with a more dangerous predator (Coyote) which is then faced with the most dangerous predator of them all (Cindy).

  2. Yah, lady with coffee cup is really dangerous. Actually, I think it is the parental protective instinct that determines this ecological play.

  3. Beautiful post. Brought tears to my eyes.

    On a lighter note, it's interesting what our first fear reactions are, and how they spring out unbounded. Although I used to be a Women's Self Defense instructor (many years ago), when I was chased by a cow (a few years ago) at Ed Levin Park (my bad, I had been flirting with her calf), all I could think of was to run like heck and scream "bad cow, you're scaring me! Don't scare me!" It's funny now...way later.

  4. From time to time Dahlia, Freesia (our cats), and the chickens get put in lock down for a few days. The flying raccoons (Stellar Jays) calls are a sure sign that something is up. We line the windows looking into the squirrel forest and sure enough a pair of coyotes looking for an easy treat. Not today so carry on.
    Living in the bushes has good days and not so good days but the rewards are outstanding.
    Paul is a grandfather? I am jealous.
    Happy to see Cole is ok. DT


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